Researchers Digitally Reconstruct Thomas Becket’s Razed Canterbury Cathedral Shrine

The model, centered around the medieval saint’s golden casket, is now available to view online

Reconstruction of Thomas Becket's shrine
At its peak, the saint's Canterbury Cathedral shrine drew upward of 100,000 visitors each year. Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, University of York

During the medieval period, the Canterbury Cathedral shrine of Catholic martyr Thomas Becket was one of England’s most popular pilgrimage destinations, welcoming as many as 100,000 visitors each year. Adorned in marble, gold and jewels, the murdered saint’s tomb was one of “unparalleled splendor,” according to a late 19th-century observer.

Pilgrims worshipped at the foot of religious relics including Becket’s golden casket, a piece of his skull and a fragment of the sword used to kill him, seeking the former archbishop’s saintly intervention in all walks of life. Within just ten years of his death in 1170, more than 700 healing miracles had been recorded at the saint’s tomb, says John Jenkins, a historian at the University of York, in a statement.

But even Becket couldn’t escape the wrath of the tempestuous Henry VIII: In 1538, the Tudor king ordered the shrine’s destruction as part of the Protestant Reformation’s iconoclastic campaign. Now, about 800 years after the site’s completion, Jenkins and his colleagues have resurrected the razed sanctuary with the help of computer-generated imagery, or CGI. Their models are available to view via the Becket Story website and YouTube.

The Corona Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral, c.1408

As Brooks Hays reports for United Press International (UPI), the researchers based their reconstruction on historical documents and analysis of artifacts recovered from Canterbury Cathedral. Marks found on fragments of the shrine’s marble base led the team to include iron railings around the saint’s casket; per a Journal of the British Archaeological Association study detailing the project, these previously unknown grills likely served as a means of enabling monks to limit visitors’ access to the shrine and a visual restriction designed to “enhance a sense of mystery.”

The digital model envisions the shrine as it would have appeared in 1408, according to BBC News. Constructed in the cathedral’s Trinity Chapel between 1180 and 1220, the elaborate complex took more than 30 years to build.

“What makes the shrine particularly special is that for 400 years, between 1220 and 1538, it was the foremost pilgrim shrine in England, and the only English pilgrim destination which was popular throughout Europe,” Jenkins tells UPI. “In 1489 it was one of four pilgrimage sites in Europe that pilgrims from India traveled specifically to see.”

Becket is perhaps best known for his brutal murder at the hands of Henry II’s knights. The king had appointed his longtime friend to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in hopes of winning an ally within the Church, but the promotion changed Becket’s mindset, transforming him from “a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds,” in his words, “to being a shepherd of souls.”

The Trinity Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral, c.1408

The pair repeatedly clashed over the issue of church versus state rights, and in December 1170, an infuriated Henry reportedly exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Interpreting this burst of outrage as a royal decree, four of the king’s knights traveled to Canterbury and cut down the archbishop in his cathedral.

Becket’s shocking demise ensured his immediate elevation as a Catholic martyr. Canonized in 1173, he soon became one of London’s patron saints, enjoying an unmatched cult following that persisted until the Protestant Reformation, when Henry VIII—characterizing Becket as “a rebel … who shall no longer be named a saint”—ordered that “his pictures throughout the realm are to be plucked down and his festivals shall no longer be kept.” The king also had the saint’s bones destroyed and all mentions of his name removed.

The shrine’s reconstruction is part of a broader project titled “Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals: Past and Present.” As Craig Simpson reports for the Telegraph, organizers hope to similarly recreate the entirety of medieval-era Canterbury and its cathedral.

“One of the things we hope the models will do, especially in their use at Canterbury Cathedral as part of the visitor experience, is help modern-day pilgrims and visitors not only see what medieval pilgrims would have seen—the sumptuous golden shrine—but also through the animated videos to understand how they interacted with it,” says Jenkins to UPI. “They give an idea of the authentic medieval pilgrim experience, and this helps visitors and pilgrims today understand how they fit into a long tradition of finding meaning and comfort in England's cathedrals.”

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